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Wrestling with the Complexities of Inclusion

By Iuliia Hoban posted 16 days ago


Wrestling with the Complexities of Inclusion

by Brian Seilstad, Ph.D.


Althea Gordon’s previous blog in this series resonated with me and the experience of international students at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco (AUI), where I am the Director of the Office of International Programs (OIP) and oversee similar efforts to engender a sense of belonging for international students on our campus. These efforts include a robust orientation program, integrated residential facilities, and full inclusion in campus life from classes to clubs. At AUI, we have had these features in place for many years and, by and large, international students have a rich and engaging experience whether as visiting or degree-seeking students.

However, there are some interesting challenges that have arisen over the years as we look more closely at the day-to-day processes of inclusion. Foremost among these is language and the challenge of English as a panacea for campus internationalization (Mortensen 2014). AUI is an English-medium university in multilingual Morocco (Ennaji 2005), which brings out a range of opportunities but also some obstacles. On the one hand, English is a presumed lingua franca that all can engage with; on the other hand, the local language practices, specifically the use of Moroccan Arabic (Dareeja) and French by the 95% Moroccan student population, create a more nuanced and sometimes problematic situation, especially for international students who may speak the language of instruction but not the local language(s) of everyday communication. This issue of language is amplified by other marginalizing factors such as gender, race, and social class. This challenge is most prevalent in the co-curricular areas of housing, athletics, and, the focus of this blog, student clubs where language practices are not controlled by the demands of the English-medium curriculum but on the linguistic practices of the members themselves. While the university can demand that academic programs be delivered in English by the faculty, it cannot easily dictate or control language practices in student clubs nor would it want to as these are meant to be multilingual spaces for students to autonomously collaborate, develop leadership skills, and so on. However, over the past few years, more international students, especially degree-seekers, have come to the OIP or other units such as the Student Activities Office (SAO) to raise the concern that although they are very enthusiastic about participating in clubs and have even tried, they have found themselves stymied by language use in the clubs and have grown frustrated to the point of deciding not to participate. As student clubs are part of the co-curriculum, those who do not participate may miss important developmental opportunities. If international students struggle to engage, at a minimum it diminishes their satisfaction with their experience and more seriously may negatively impact their future prospects.

Understanding the Issue

As a result of this concern, the OIP and the SAO recently launched an exploratory process to understand the situation more clearly before making any decisions to potentially address the issue. We deployed a survey of all AUI students and then conducted three focus groups: one with only Moroccan students, one with international students, and one mixed.

From the survey, we found that, before joining AUI, all students were very enthusiastic about clubs but this initial excitement waned somewhat for all groups and dramatically for international students. The perception of language as a challenge was quite stark between the two groups. Almost all the Moroccan students expressed no issues with languages in clubs but almost all the international students did. This largely confirmed what the international students had anecdotally been telling us.

The focus groups drew out complicated nuances between the two groups. On the one hand, the Moroccan students felt that they and others made significant efforts to support international students linguistically in clubs. For example, one student explained “if there is an international we'll try to speak in English, but if there is no international so we feel comfortable (to speak Arabic or French).” This pointed to a willingness on the Moroccan students’ part to adjust language use in clubs to support international students. In contrast, the international group expressed appreciation for the linguistic complexity in Morocco and even a desire to engage and learn with one student saying, “I was in the Moroccan Politics club. It was like so much fun, the discussion and everything, and I really enjoyed and loved it…I mean, the first language is the native language, it has some like, I don't know, it spices things so that you just want to use it.”

However, the perception of adequate linguistic adjustment or accommodation on the part of the Moroccans was not sufficient from the international students’ perspectives. As one student clarified “It was a problem because I had a Moroccan friend, she had to translate everything…so three of us were going so it was like, not really fun that she was translating everything, because she was not (doing it well), or she might not be able to follow. And then we were distracting her…so it was a really difficult experience talking to them…and you cannot tell a person not just use the local language when they're trying to convey a very significant or important information.”

Thus, this linguistic challenge seems to be a consistent but complicated issue for both parties. For example, neither group felt that creating rules about English use in clubs was the solution as both respect the multilingual context, but on the other hand both recognized that this situation is frustrating. One of the Moroccan students even related experiencing something similar as an exchange student in Korea when it was not really possible for international students to join clubs without robust knowledge of Korean.

Considering Responses

In the survey and focus groups, all participants were asked to think about ways to address this issue. Again, there was consensus that the situation would not be addressed simply through rules, but the students did suggest a range of ideas. The first related to raising the awareness of language use in clubs by including clauses about language policy in club charters, ensuring that, at a minimum, important decisions are discussed and made in a common club language, training club leaders about language use, and encouraging the SAO to conduct some oversight of this issue. Beyond policy, both groups suggested creating more opportunities for broader sharing amongst students about issues related to inclusion. Finally, the international students did request more formal language classes to help them develop language ability, especially in Dareeja because it is a central language to Moroccan life but not regularly offered as a course at the university.

These suggestions will take some time and focus to implement, but the OIP and SAO are committed to the work. A key insight from this process for the OIP and SAO was that international students may be less likely to advocate for their inclusion in clubs after facing a frustrating experience and just decide to withdraw from student club participation. However, as university leadership and key offices, both the OIP and SAO agreed that this is not satisfactory for AUI and that engaging international students in student clubs and the cocurriculum must be a proactive and diligent process involving a range of policies, practices, and dialogues to address these perhaps unexpressed frictions and improve campus inclusion over time.


Ennaji, Moha. 2005. Multilingualism, Cultural Identity, and Education in Morocco. Springer Science & Business Media.

Mortensen, Janus. 2014. “Language Policy from below: Language Choice in Student Project Groups in a Multilingual University Setting.” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 35 (4): 425–42.